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The New York Times' Favor and Fear

By       Message Robert Parry     Permalink
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A similar request was made in 2004 when the White House appealed to the Times to suppress Risen's story about the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping of Americans suspected of communicating with terror suspects abroad.

The major difference in the two cases was that the Times reversed itself more than a year later on the wiretap story, after learning that Risen would reveal the secret in his book.

However, the journalistic point remains the same for both instances. The Times was not behaving in an objective or neutral manner. It wasn't just reporting the news. It was taking sides.

The simple truth is that major U.S. news organizations, including the Times, routinely take sides in favor of U.S. foreign policy and against identified U.S. adversaries. The goal to appear "patriotic" -- or at least not "disloyal" -- trumps journalistic principles.

"Good for the Country"

In my three-decades-plus career as a Washington-based journalist, I have seen this reality demonstrated repeatedly at mainstream news organizations where I worked, including the Associated Press and Newsweek. Senior editors often fancied themselves as doing what's "good for the country" in spinning a story in ways most favorable to the U.S. government, rather than simply writing what presented itself.

Double standards were common. For instance, it was an easy sell to get editors to approve a story accusing Nicaragua's Sandinista government of drug trafficking (although the evidence was thin to non-existent) but it required a pitched battle (and plenty of solid evidence) to convince editors to go with a story about cocaine smuggling by President Ronald Reagan's pet Nicaraguan Contra rebels.

The reason was obvious. Even if the allegations against the Sandinistas were completely bogus, there would be no meaningful repercussions for running the story. However, if there was even the slightest flaw in the Contra-cocaine evidence, the consequences would be severe. So, the smart career play was to go with the first accusation and avoid the second.

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Other times, there are tough calls about whether to publish U.S. national security secrets -- and these can be very difficult decisions. The government will always insist that lives are at stake and will threaten to point the finger of blame if you publish a story and someone gets hurt or killed. Frankly, it's hard for a reporter to assess exactly what the risks are.

But often the government exaggerates the dangers.

In 1985, I was the first reporter to publicly identify White House aide Oliver North as a key figure in arranging secret (and possibly illegal) support for the Nicaraguan Contras. However, when the Times did a follow-up on my AP story, the newspaper acquiesced to White House demands to leave out North's name for his safety. The Times story only referred to an unnamed U.S. government official.

That decision to shield North's identity was probably the safe political play for the Times, rather than join the AP in naming North. The Times editors and reporters surely earned some brownie points with Reagan's White House and likely drew praise for their "patriotism."

But the Times decision had consequences for the then-evolving Iran-Contra scandal in which North was a central figure. By excluding his name, the Times, in effect, protected his ability to continue operating outside the law and in the shadows, rather than put him on the spot for his dubious actions.

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In the end, the United States and North's boss, President Reagan, were probably ill served by the Times' capitulation on naming North. The Iran-Contra scandal, which broke into the open in late 1986, represented the worst national security scandal of Reagan's presidency and brought the country close to another impeachment battle.

The Lockerbie Bombing

Yet, to this day, the New York Times and other major U.S. news outlets continue to tilt their coverage of foreign policy and national security issues to fit within the general framework laid out by Official Washington. Rarely do mainstream journalists deviate too far.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at It's also available at

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